Prove your body wrong

Mar 2

Notes from the Scholar & Feminist Utopia Conference at Barnard

(not my actual notes lolol I’m not deciphering that chicken scratch right now). But here are my reflections on the day, as they are:

My problem, lately, has been feeling like I’m not grounded enough in reality. My problem with the academy and my desire to enter grad school is that I’ve been feeling hit too hard by the ivory tower on all sides; my problem with fandom has been that I keep running into people with heads so far in the clouds (and/or up their asses) that I sometimes want to wash my hands of the entirety of Tumblr. So when I saw that the theme of the Barnard Center for Research on Women’s Scholar/Feminist conference this year was Utopia, I was a bit skeptical. The eternally empowering thing about BCRW to me has been its dual focus on activism and the academy, but the term utopia has always stood out to me as a hopelessly idealistic, wildly unattainable thing. Certainly not a topic that could make up an entire conference on scholarship and feminism. I was very happy to have been proven wrong on both counts, for the people who I heard speak today gave me entirely new perspectives on what it means to be an activist, on the idea of utopia as a feminist space, on imagining and creating utopias within our lived realities. They weren’t just academics (though the academics were great too!) but people from the real world who are doing real work to try and make the world a better place. It left me with a much-needed reality check, but left me feeling inspired about activism and the ability to make a difference in a way I haven’t in an exceptionally long time.

There were an enormous variety of topics covered today, and I can’t hope to cover them all. The keynote addresses covered an enormous breadth, and I chose my afternoon workshops to gain further depth of what I’m personally intrigued by when it comes to imagining feminist utopias—those in science fiction, fantasy, and transformative works. There are three things that stuck out to me today in the workshops I attended that I have further thoughts on. I’m exhausted from the day and a bit drunk on the free wine so I can’t promise any coherency, but we’ll give it a shot.

K. Tempest Bradford ran a workshop on utopia in literature, specifically on utopias within speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, horror, etc.). She spoke of the increasing focus on and writing of dystopian worlds, and the use of post-apocalyptic futures as comments and critiques on our own society (apparently these days in YA literature dystopia is synonymous with science fiction, which is slightly alarming and a conversation for another time). So she asked the question: what does it mean to create utopian literature? And what does it mean to read it?

Bradford made the argument that utopia in literature is relative, and I think that’s an idea that ran throughout this conference. True utopia might not be attainable, but we have the power to create our own micro-utopias within literature and within reality. She argued that there are times when you have to “write the world you want to see,” and that’s an incredibly powerful idea, in a lot of ways. She spoke of speculative fiction literature where the worlds as a whole are not perfect—for how can they be?—but that take some position that is positive, and move forward from there.

This author wasn’t brought up in the discussion, but I kept thinking back to Malinda Lo, author of Ash and Huntress. Both take place in high fantasy worlds, complete with their own hierachries and structures and problems. At the same time, each book centers around the love story of two young women, and the fact that they’re queer is a complete non-issue. I saw Lo speak at the Brooklyn Book Festival in October, and she said then that she wanted to create a fantasy world—a utopian world, of a sort—where sexual orientation simply doesn’t matter. The world of Ash is hardly a utopia: inequalities exist, countries face famine and warfare and class divides. Yet in this small way, it is. Two women are able to love each other without fear of stigma or homophobia, and their struggle to maintain their love is placed on the same level as the dozens of other heteronormative romances we see in literature. They’re placed on even footing, and able to move forward from there. 

These are powerful visions of feminist utopias in literature that are essential to . But looking at Bradford’s suggested reading list, I couldn’t help but be haunted by Octavia Butler’s Earthseed duology, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, which deals with an entirely different vision of utopia. Set in a postapocalyptic dystopian California, the traces a young woman’s attempt to create her own utopia out of a fallen Earth. The books are harrowing and grim, and though the first book ends on a note of optimism, the second book shows with stark reality the near-impossibility of maintaining a utopia in such a world. Butler ends in a utopian vision for the world, but takes her characters and the reader through such a harrowing struggle that one is left wondering if the idea of a utopia is even possible at all.

 So what are we left with, then? The part of me that can’t compartmentalize says we need to choose between the impossible struggle for full utopia and the idealized vision of these micro-utopias that come out of speculative literature. At the end of the day, though, you can’t really compare the two.  You need both within literature—I want to read lesbian love stories within high fantasy worlds, where the fact that they’re lesbians is simply a non-issue. I want young girls to see how it can be a non-issue. At the same time, I find that Octavia Butler reminds us that utopias remain at their hearts idealistic visions that can be snuffed out in a heartbeat. Indeed, in my mind Butler’s works present the argument that certain oppressions and atrocities are going to occur in any universe, in any society, no matter how hard we try to prevent them.* The Earthseed duology is about the struggle to create a utopia, and the heartrending impossibility of maintaining one.

So it was nice, after that, to return to the closest thing to my own personal utopia—fandom, remix, and transformative works. Francesca Coppa and Elisa Kreisinger ran a workshop entitled “Talking Back to Culture Through Feminist Remix,” which positioned the communities built around remixes of culture as feminist utopian spaces against the overwhelmingly white, heterosexual able-bodied male-dominated media.

I’ve written several times before on how important the act of responding to popular culture through transformative works has been to me personally, and to the online communities in which I live and write. Coppa spoke of mass culture as an “art supply store,” and indeed, there’s hardly a better metaphor for how we create fanfiction, fanart, and fanvids. We’re reminded that our corner of fandom is female dominated, made by and for women, a form of art practice that makes our readings of the visible, and that our readings are ourselves. We’re allowed to be imperfect, we’re allowed to be messy—and boy, is writing fanfiction sometimes messy—but the space that is the Archive of Our Own (for example) allows for that and encourages it. And if that’s not utopian in its own way, I’m really not sure what is.

There’s a lot I feel like I could say about transformative works and feminist remix, but at the end of the day I feel as though it’s not my place (for a variety of complicated reasons). So I’ll just wrap this up by saying that this was a really great day. It’s given me a lot to think about, and a lot to act on.

*Thinking primarily of Xenogenesis and Seed to Harvest here.